On a one-mile hike out to Lindy Point in Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia in late July I was suddenly surrounded by an explosion of pink tinted white blossoms. This was completely unexpected, as they normally bloom in late June and early July. The bushes were ten to fifteen feet tall all around me and I felt like the world had suddenly become so SOFT and a sensation of weightlessness overcame me. I felt myself floating with the clusters of blossoms and held by their thousands of cotton ball hands and long arms. The fallen petals lining the path were like a trail left by the fairies. An unmistakable feeling of glory was overwhelming me.
Great Laurel, Rosebay Rhododendron, and Rhododendron Maximum – these are all names of this rhododendron that is the voice of these Appalachian Mountain ridges. Bursting forth in choral bloom each summer, in the understory of taller neighboring trees, these ancient plants pull forth the voice of the very rocks they cling to. The sound that comes through the rhododendron from the stones of these oldest of mountains is Beauty. Yes, Beauty is a sound too, albeit one with a vibration too slow for us to hear.
Do mountains talk? Sing? Vibrate? What is the voice of the rock? Of the mountains? How many voices does it have? I read an article about how geologists at the university of Utah with the help of some rock climbers, recorded the vibrations of Castletown Tower – a rock formation in Moab, Utah. They used seismometers and amplified and sped up the three-hour recording to a frequency audible to humans. This is interesting science that satisfies my thinking mind.
In the shade of tall oaks and maples, the hardscrabble rhododendron clings to the ridges and the thin soils of the mountain tops with gritty will. It grows in dense patches of knarly, twisty branches and roots that bend and wander, dominating the understory over 12,000 square miles of the Appalachian Mountains. Where it is thick and continuous, the locals have been known to call it laurel slicks or laurel hells, with their nearly impenetrable, low branching woody growth, protecting its boundaries. In addition, the flowers, and leaves and even the honey are toxic. The indigenous peoples here even used a strong decoction of the leaves to bring on death when needed.
The roots of this tenacious plant must be an even more tangled, denser web below the ground, scrambling around and in between the rocks to bring up the heart and soul of the mountain’s year long journey around the sun into this amazing chorus of flowers.
On my walk, when I finally came to the end of the rhododendron thicket, I came out onto a rock out-cropping where I could see waves of mountain ridges rippling in the distance. And I saw in my mind’s eye all the rhododendron covering these surrounding mountain tops with their explosions of beauty. Thousands of them, grouped in clusters, with their mouths open, singing the ancient song of these ridge tops. I am so glad that we can SEE this song since we can’t quite literally hear it the way the mountains most assuredly can. I felt the Beauty simply emanating like heat waves from the surrounding hilltops.
Rhododendrons are about 50 million years old. These remarkably hardy plants have a history of living with our mountains for an incredibly long time – long, even by mountain standards. No wonder that they have become so deeply intertwined and connected and dance together so beautifully.
They seem to know the tricky balance of love and boundaries. The boundaries that protect the love and allow it to grow. And the Love that bursts forth in full glory when the balance is right in the world.